The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties formulated in Geneva, Switzerland, that set the standards for international law for humanitarian concerns. They chiefly concern the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war. They do not affect the use of weapons in war, which are covered by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Protocol on the use of gas and biological weapons of 1925. They were founded by two young men—Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross movement and Gustave Moynier, a co-founder—who cordially loathed each other. The role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, a voluntary humanitarian organization as a non-state actor in monitoring the treatment of prisoners of war, and the conduct of war according to international law, is an example of how civil society, because it is sometimes more neutral than states, can play a pivotal part in helping to create a better, more humane world.
The Conventions were the results of efforts by Henry Dunant, who was motivated by the horrors of war he witnessed at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The adoption of the First Convention followed the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross whose founder, Henry Dunant, initiated international negotiations that produced the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War in 1864.
Because some belligerents in World War II had abused the principles contained in earlier conventions, an International Red Cross conference in Stockholm in 1948 extended and codified the existing provisions. The conference developed four conventions, which were approved in Geneva on August 12, 1949.
In the decades following World War II, the large number of anticolonial and insurrectionary wars threatened to render the Geneva Conventions obsolete. After four years of Red Cross-sponsored negotiations, two additional protocols to the 1949 conventions, covering both combatants and civilians, were approved in 1977.
As per article 49, 50, 129 and 146 of the Geneva Conventions I, II, III and IV, respectively, all signatory states are required to enact sufficient national laws that make grave violations of the Geneva Conventions a punishable criminal offense, this is what created the international criminal court. More than 180 states have become parties to the 1949 conventions. Approximately 150 states are party to Protocol I; more than 145 states are party to Protocol II, though the United States is not. In addition, more than 50 states have made declarations accepting the competence of international fact-finding commissions to investigate allegations of grave breaches or other serious violations of the conventions or of Protocol I.
In addition, there are three additional amendment protocols to the Geneva Convention:
All four conventions were last revised and ratified in 1949, based on previous revisions and partly on some of the 1907 Hague Conventions; the whole set is referred to as the "Geneva Conventions of 1949" or simply the "Geneva Conventions." Later conferences have added provisions prohibiting certain methods of warfare and addressing issues of civil wars. Nearly all 200 countries of the world are "signatory" nations, in that they have ratified these conventions.
Clara Barton was instrumental in campaigning for the ratification of the First Geneva Convention by the United States; the U.S. signed in 1882. By the Fourth Geneva Convention some 47 nations had ratified the agreements.
Other conventions of the United Nations taking place in Geneva and agreements signed there have become part of international and national laws, but are not to be confused with the above-mentioned treaties though they may be referred to as "Geneva Conventions." These include the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967), and others.
The war against terror following the attack on the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, has raised issues regarding the classification of prisoners. The United States classified many detainees in its facility at Guantanamo Bay as "illegal combatants" and argued that the terms of the Geneva Convention apply only to those individuals who abide by the rules of law. The ICRC, which has visited the camp and also Amnesty International, have argued that the detainees deserve the full protection of the Geneva Conventions, but the U.S.'s position was that that only some of the provisions of the Convention apply. Following a ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in June 2006 rejecting the use of "special tribunals" to try detainees, and called for the application of the rule of law and conformity with the Geneva Conventions. Subsequently, the U.S. government announced that it would treat all prisoners captured during the war on terror according to the Geneva Conventions. On the one hand, some argue that the war on terror requires a revision of international humanitarian law to deal with changed circumstances, in which non-state actors do not follow the rules of war. On the other hand, the Supreme Court's ruling has been hailed as a vindication of the Geneva Convention's effectiveness.
One of the most debated issues surrounds the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the West bank and Gaza strip following the Israeli occupation. Article two states that "The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance." The United Nations determined in 1979 that the Geneva Conventions do apply but this has been rejected by Israel, which hold that "the Fourth Geneva Convention is not applicable to the occupied territories." The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Convention does apply, which again can be interpreted as a vindication of the extent of the provisions of the Conventions.
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